What Putin wants, what he’ll accept, and the Latvia nightmare

Since independence in 1991 Ukraine has suffered primarily from its blood-sucking neoliberal oligarchs, and yet elections have always focused on language, ethnicity, and whether to turn economically toward the East or West. Now Ukraine is at a crossroads, as the US-instigated coup government attempts to force all of Ukraine into the EU/IMF/NATO fold. This anti-democratic move has met massive resistance in Crimea and south and eastern Ukraine, and now the country faces three choices: comply with the turn toward the West, break up into two countries, Western Ukraine and Southeastern Ukraine and Crimea, or choose to remain one nation but in the form of a very loose federation.

A naval port in Crimea
Will just Crimea (with its ports) be enough for Putin?

I think Vladimir Putin prefers the latter. I base this partly on Putin’s moves in Crimea, which is turning into a bargaining chip, but primarily on the little noticed comments last month by Sergei Glazyev, an adviser to Putin with responsibility for Ukraine relations:

Russia, [Glazyev] said, was concerned that the country should not split apart. But he suggested that a form of federalism be introduced to give regions substantial powers – including over their budgets and even international relations.

Citing the example of Greenland, which enjoys substantial autonomy from Denmark and unlike the Danish state is not part of the European Union, he said western and eastern Ukraine could have different economic relations with the EU and Russia.

‘Today, economic, cultural and human ties between the regions of eastern and western Ukraine are less than the links between southeastern Ukraine and Russia and between the western regions and the EU,’ Glazyev said, suggesting eastern regions might want to join a customs union that Putin favours.

In this context, Putin probably views Crimea’s likely overwhelming vote for union with Russia as a bargaining ploy. I don’t think accepting Crimea into Russia is his preferred option, as it would leave Russian speakers a minority within Ukraine. For how that goes, look to Latvia, where many Russians are still denied citizenship and the government has long attempted to create a monolingual state out of a country where 37% speak Russian as their first language:

The status of the Russian-speaking minority – who are not only Russians ethnically, but also Belarusians and Ukrainians – is painful in modern Latvia. The hundreds of thousands who now carry ‘alien passports’ moved to live in the then-Soviet republic after 1945, or their descendants. When Latvia became independent in the 1990s, the new leaders were determined to make it a mono-national country.

Two decades have hardly been enough to integrate the Latvian Russians into the new society. Those who fail rigid language tests are still denied citizenship and all the privileges it brings. The use of Russian is discouraged. In schools at least 60 per cent of all classes from grade 10 through 12 must be taught in Latvian, even if all the pupils are from Russian families and have problems speaking the state language.

Similar abuse or worse by Ukrainian nationalists — at least the Latvians aren’t neo-Nazis — I think is almost inevitable if Russian speakers become a minority within Ukraine. Federation, with regional control of language, educational, cultural, and economic policy and relations, would preserve a Russian-language majority in Ukraine, permanently defuse the language and economic wars between eastern and western Ukraine, and end the two-decades long and severely destabilizing economic alliance tug of war between the West and Russia. Ukrainians put the identity issues aside and start to focus on unseating their oligarchs, while the West gets some of what it wants and Russia gets most of what it wants.

But that is the main problem with such a deal, that the West probably thinks it can do better. Russia doesn’t have the power to make the ‘loose federation’ ideal happen unless it finds some unlikely allies or it decides to put soldiers on the ground in southern and eastern Ukraine.

If he must accept only Crimea, I think Putin will console himself with that. I don’t see him as a man who wants to take on the very dangerous adventure of aiding a war for independence by eastern and southern Ukraine, and I don’t see the anti-coup population in those regions as willing to go that far anyway.

At least not right now. There will be a much greater willingness to resort to civil war after the EU and IMF impose austerity on Ukraine.

Photo by Sergiy Klymenko released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license.

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